April 11, 2011 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

Back in August, our New Solutions: The Drawing Board partnership with the journal New Solutions featured a post by Anne Fischel and Lin Nelson about the situation in Cananea, Mexico, where miners have been striking against the Asarco/Grupo Mexico copper operation for more than three years. The miners are demanding improvements not only to unsafe working conditions, but to the local environment.

Fischel and Nelson were part of a group that visited Cananea last year through a tour arranged by the United Association of Labor Education and hosted by an organization of the Mexican Miners Union. Last month, members of the delegation presented the group’s report, Crossing the Border to Cananea: High Stakes and Teachable Moments for North American Workers, at the UALE’s annual meeting in New Orleans. Here’s a section of their report on health hazards:

Threats to the health and safety of workers and the community have been key drivers of the strike. Workers and their families stressed the dangerous working conditions and the unrelenting threats to community health from contaminated air and water. The union’s many appeals to the Secretary of Labor about degraded working conditions have been ignored.

Here are some of the conditions we learned about from the miners, the women’s organization and health practitioners.

1) After Grupo Mexico took over the mine, workers and the union reported an increasing numbers of hazards. A growing list of violations was ignored by the company. A worker trained in electro-mechanics whose job focused on maintenance and prevention, told us: “When things were more normal, we kept things in good working order. But when copper prices go up, then came more pressure. Copper up; company demands up. There was less time on preventive maintenance… They wanted more production out of the equipment, but that meant more health and safety problems.”

2) Accidents are a grim daily reality. Workers report lack of signage around hazards. One new worker lost an eye because of the absence of warnings about high-pressure, scalding water. Another worker fell through metal flooring that had not been maintained, and died when he landed on equipment a full flight below. Another man fell into a processing tube which carried his body to another building on the site. “Lock out” procedures were not followed; under time pressures, faulty machinery was left on during repairs. Much needed guard-rails were not installed until the union took possession of the mine during the strike.

3) Silicosis and other lung impairments are common, due to constant exposure to dust and the lack of appropriate personal protective equipment and careful monitoring. During an investigation of the mine in November 2007, the Maquila Health and Safety Support Network (MHSSN.org) documented silica dust piling up in corners and covering stairways. Miners report that the dust was often so thick they couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of them.

4) Hearing loss is a persistent condition facing many workers, who were only furnished with earplugs. There is a constant barrage of noise from the giant machinery.

5) Miners have always faced hazards and today’s miners feel that their fathers endured too much. But they are quick to note new and more insidious hazards – complex chemicals and radioactive materials that augment today’s mining process, elevating the risks, especially for certain cancers.

6) Miners face persistent threats to lung and cardiac health. But the cardio-pulmonary tests called for in the collective bargaining agreement, were not done regularly. Some miners have never had a test for lung function. Not trusting the company doctors, the union turned to independent diagnosticians; but the company has rejected their findings.

7) If a worker was found to have serious respiratory distress impairing his work, he was likely to be reassigned to another work post and then quietly let go — a violation of the contract.

8) From all accounts, there is a serious lack of effective record-keeping.

Safety losing out to speeded-up production … inadequate dust control … insufficient hearing protection … lack of effective record-keeping … These probably all sound familiar to anyone who’s been following problems at US workplaces where employers don’t take sufficient steps to provide safe work environments. But the dedication of hundreds of miners in Cananea, spending three years striking for better working conditions, makes this saga stand out. From the report, it’s also evident that the community is supporting the miners, despite the economic repercussions. The full report – including many more details, and photos – is available online here.

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